Welcome to “Good Morning, Illini Nation,” your daily dose of college basketball news from Illini beat writer and AP Top 25 voter Scott Richey. He’ll offer up insights every morning until practice tips off.
I really couldn’t have even planned this. To quote fellow News-Gazette sports writer Bob Asmussen, “Timing is everything in everything.” (If you’re a regular listener of Monday Night Sports Talk on WDWS 1400-AM you’ll follow. If not, why aren’t you? #ShamelessPlug)
Wednesday afternoon I wrote about the talent drain in the Big Ten and how it could help Illinois basketball jump up the conference standings this coming season. That same evening I got a chance to hear Illini assistant coach Orlando Antigua speak at the Illini Rebounders Tip-Off even in Champaign. Part of his message? Returning the bulk of last year’s roster intact was crucial for this year’s team.
Illinois, on paper at least, is in an enviable position in the Big Ten. Four of five starters return. So do four other scholarship players off the bench, including valuable sixth man Andres Feliz. Other Big Ten teams aren’t so fortunate.
Nebraska, of course, took the hardest hit between graduation, transfers and the NBA draft. New coach Fred Hoiberg will start his tenure with just a single player — junior wing Thorir Thorbjarnarson — who played for the Cornhuskers last season. Michigan took serious hits on the wing losing Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole.
Wisconsin lost arguably one of its greatest players of all time in Ethan Happ. Purdue will move forward without dominant guard Carsen Edwards. Minnesota without Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey. You get the picture. It was league wide.
In fact, just 11 of the top 30 scorers in the Big Ten from last season return. The Illini have three of them in Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Avoiding serious roster turnover? Yeah, it’s a good thing.
“Another big important part of getting prepared for this year was being able to retain the experience that we were able to retain from the young group you guys got to witness last year that had an unbelievably challenging schedule early on and continued to get better and grow and improve,” Antigua said. “Which is what has led to all the excitement about this year. The retaining and repetition for some of those young guys leads to confidence and the expectations.”
Antigua also discussed the team’s trip to Italy with a packed house of Illini Rebounders at the Hilton Garden Inn. Of course, as a coach, he had a similar feeling as Underwood. The 10 practices beforehand were just as — if not more — important for the team. The Illini staff was excited about what they saw in those regular two-a-days at Ubben Basketball Complex.
“We saw the growth, we saw the development and we saw that we weren’t any longer coaching effort,” Antigua said. “We were actually coaching basketball. That comes from the retention and the repetition and those guys being familiar with what our culture is about.”